Election fraud cases stemming from a Starr County investigation launched by 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar last year were the focus of his testimony Monday before a Senate Committee on State Affairs regarding an “election integrity” bill.
Filed by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, Senate Bill 9 would tighten laws around mail-in ballots and voter assistance.
It would also increase the penalties for making a false statement on a registration application and illegally assisting voters to a state jail felony.
Additionally, the standard to prove voter fraud in an election contest would be raised from having to provide “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of evidence.”
Escobar testified in support of the bill by speaking on the DA office’s efforts, beginning in January 2018, to enforce state election laws that were enacted in 2017.
For the 2018 Democratic Primary in March, Escobar said, the county had about 30,000 registered voters and received about 2,000 applications for mail-in ballots.
“When we began our enforcement efforts, as far as the changes to mail-in voting laws, what we saw was sort of a decrease in the number of people that actually voted by mail,” Escobar said. “So what happened in the actual election was that only approximately 800 … of the persons who applied for ballot by mail actually voted by mail. The rest began to cancel their ballots.”
He explained that a common practice for political workers, or politiqueras, was to approach voters to inform them they could vote from the convenience of their own home.
“Many of the voters believed the political workers were actually official election workers, so they were being shoved an application in their face and told: ‘Do you want to vote from the convenience of your own home?’” Escobar told the senate committee.
However, unbeknownst to the voter, the political workers would mark the application as being for a disabled voter even though the person was not disabled.
The politiqueras would then tell the voter to notify them when their ballot arrived in the mail so that they could “assist” the voter in filling it out.
Robert Caples, commander of the Starr County Special Crimes Unit, which assisted in the investigation, said the voters were given misinformation and were being manipulated by the politiqueras
He noted that every single person he spoke to had no idea their application had been marked as being for a disabled person.
When people in the community got wind of the investigation, people started canceling their mail-in ballot applications, Escobar told the Senate committee.
Despite the decrease, Escobar said overall voter turnout was not affected with about 14,000 people turning out for that election. However, he said the strategy for the politiqueras changed from mail-in ballots to offering “assistance” at the polls.
But SB 9 has also received criticism from civil rights groups arguing the bill places substantial burdens on voters.
James Slattery, a senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, also testified Monday, believing the bill contained a lot of alarming changes that would impose substantial and unnecessary new barriers to voting.
One specific provision, he said, would effectively eliminate the intent requirement in certain election-related offenses, which could lead voters to be thrown in jail for making an honest mistake in the voting process.
A remaining concern, Escobar said, was the lack of an enforcement provision within the election code that would stop election fraud as it’s happening, as opposed to prosecuting after an election is already held.
Escobar suggested some kind of emergency enforcement authority to officials, such as the county attorney or the Attorney General’s office, to enforce the election laws during the election. He also suggested the ability of private individuals to take measures such as filing a petition with a court for an injunction or a temporary restraining order against a politiquera or an election official who is not enforcing the laws.
“In either case, I think that a lot of the provisions that we have in SB 9 address a lot of the concerns that we have,” Escobar said, “and I think that they go a long way toward addressing election fraud.”